| Shaun Tandon |
NEW YORK (AFP) – New York’s cold November wind felt a world away but the New Orleans jazz musicians marched like they were at home, dancing under umbrellas to brass and banjo.
The jazz band was working its way to a temple to jazz, Harlem’s 80-year-old Apollo Theater, which sought some flavor from the Big Easy as it inducted New Orleans-born musical pioneer Louis Armstrong into a new Hall of Fame.
With fans waving commemorative handkerchiefs, the band played songs including “When The Saints Go Marching In” – a jazz and gospel staple that was popularised globally by Armstrong – and swayed to a New Orleans-style second line dance.
The dedication of the plaque late Friday launched a weekend of performances that aimed to create some of the atmosphere of New Orleans in New York, bringing together two jazz capitals.
Irvin Mayfield, the Grammy Award-winning New Orleans trumpeter, led the musical procession and curated a weekend of performances he hoped would befit Armstrong’s legacy.
“Louis Armstrong is to America what William Shakespeare was to England,” Mayfield told AFP.
Armstrong, born in 1901 into dire poverty in New Orleans, discovered the cornet after he was thrown into a juvenile jail on a minor offence.
He gradually refined the sounds he heard on the New Orleans street as he helped construct jazz as a genre.
Amid an exodus of African Americans from the South, Armstrong moved in 1922 to Chicago which was quickly emerging as jazz’s adopted home. Armstrong later moved to New York, where he died in 1971.
Despite his New Orleans roots, Armstrong – whose trumpet evoked the human voice – arguably represented the shift from the New Orleans roots of ensemble-driven jazz to the Northern style that emphasised solos.
New Orleans jazz embraces the tuba and banjo, which have disappeared from much of Northern jazz which favours guitars and tighter composition.
Asked about the differences between regional styles, Mayfield said: “Like being a great writer, that’s just your clothing.
“A great writer can choose to shed their clothing and become free and naked and then they belong to everybody, and that’s what Louis Armstrong did,” he said.
To bring New Orleans jazz to New York, Mayfield said that the most critical ingredient was the spirit.
“We wanted to bring a real experience and a real celebration,” he said.
“Coming from New Orleans, people have jazz as a party.”
Mayfield, whose work has ranged from his New Orleans Jazz Orchestra to his Afro-Cuban ensemble Los Hombres Calientes, tried to reach both to the past and to the new with his curated weekend at the Apollo.
For one concert, Mayfield, the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra and R&B singing great Aaron Neville are performing a selection of lesser-known works meant to evoke the musical atmosphere of their hometown in the 1950s and 1960s.
In a swing to the new, pianist Jon Batiste will perform his more modern and funky jazz. Batiste has collaborated with artists as diverse as Prince and Jimmy Buffett.
Armstrong himself played the Apollo Theater as have most other jazz icons including Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker, among many others.
Established in 1934, the Apollo was one of the first New York theatres to welcome racially integrated audiences and launched careers – mostly famously of Ella Fitzgerald – through its amateur nights.
The Apollo, which suffered financial trouble in the 1980s, launched a major restoration in 2001 and four years ago started a Hollywood-like Hall of Fame to honour jazz greats and encourage tourists.
Other names already on the Walk of Fame include Ella Fitzgerald, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson as well as R&B singer Chuck Jackson, who was on hand for Armstrong’s dedication. “Jazz really was born in New Orleans. But it was nurtured and it grew up here in Harlem,” said Jonelle Procope, the theatre’s president.